The mission of the Pan African Film and Arts Festival puts it between the rock and hard place of being both a film festival and a cultural booster, two tacks that don't always sync up smoothly. Its organizers want to bring you the best film fare from across the African diaspora but also want it to be a showcase for filmmakers whose work simply isn't shown elsewhere in the United States, thus depriving them of the chance that scores of white filmmakers are allowed at, say, Sundance — the chance to be formulaic, mediocre, noticeably wet behind the ears and yet still rack up credibility.

This year there isn't a lot of mediocrity on the menu, but there's a lot that's just competent-to-fine. That includes Aimee Lagos' 96 Minutes, told largely in flashback as the perpetrators and victims of a carjacking gone awry deal with the horrific fallout. The film wants to talk about big issues (race, class, the death penalty) but is thwarted by simplistic conceptualization. The white-kid half of the carjacking duo is poor, dim, hyperviolent; the black kid — also poor but very smart — is right on the verge of breaking out of the hood when he makes a dumb choice. Lagos seems to want to upend racial expectation but has simply traded one cinematic cliché for a self-conscious corrective that's become hoary in its own right.

Donovan's Echo stars Danny Glover as Donovan, a brilliant mathematician who falls into three decades of depression and alcoholism after a family tragedy. Echo initially plays out as a moderately engaging supernatural thriller in which the violence of the past eerily starts to repeat itself in the present. Donovan must figure out why, and everything goes swimmingly for the viewer until one too many instances of Donovan endangering himself for a stranger sparks the realization that he's yet another manifestation of the magical Negro, repeatedly putting himself at risk to save a white charge.

Meanwhile, High Chicago, set in Canada in 1975, is a better-than-average drama about a factory worker, Sam (British actor Colin Salmon), whose gambling and boozing endanger his family's finances, and whose dream of opening a drive-in in Africa pushes his marriage to the brink of collapse. The sets look too much like sets (distractingly so), and too many of the secondary characters are stock, but the story pulls you in, and it's always a treat to see the underrated Salmon do his thing.

Many of the documentaries are similarly just OK but with elements that are riveting. Mama Africa, a celebration of the life and career of the late South African singing icon Miriam Makeba, directed by Mika Kaurismaki, is pure documentary boilerplate — talking heads singing the subject's praises, lots of old newsreels and photographs. But those newsreels and vintage photos are absolutely gorgeous, as is the generously served up performance footage of Makeba, which spans her career.

Mickey Madoda Dube's Sobukwe: A Great Soul retrieves the late, formidable African activist Robert Sobukwe from the dustbin of history with dramatic re-enactments of key moments, lots of archival footage and talking heads, including Cornel West, Molefi Kete Asanti and Andrew Young. It's must-see viewing for any serious scholar of African or progressive global politics. Unfortunately, Dube doesn't trust the inherent drama or worthiness of Sobukwe's tale, and veers hard into hagiography.

On the other hand, Sam Pollard's documentary Slavery by Another Name is simply fantastic, as is Rolie Nikiwe's Inside Story, about the struggles of a Kenyan soccer star with HIV.

The former teems with experts, research data and archival photos, yet is never dry. It's an infuriating, often hard-to-watch look at the post–Civil War South and the ways in which former slaves were criminalized in order to be turned into free prison labor, in effect continuing the practice of slavery. The film connects the dots to the modern prison industry, while also pointing out the ways in which immigrants would be (and still are) pitted against African-Americans in a race to the bottom for cheap labor.

Inside Story shouldn't work at all — it's a stitching together of an HIV/AIDS PSA, the formulaic tale of an underdog sports team that defies all odds, and a poor boy/rich girl love story. Yet it's a rousing success, delivering its safe-sex message in a way that tackles issues of poverty and struggle, captures cosmopolitan modern Africa and massages the tear ducts in the end.

PAN AFRICAN FILM & ARTS FESTIVAL | Feb. 9-20 | Rave Cinemas, Baldwin Hills |

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